2016 was a strange year. On the one hand, it seemed like none of our favourite musicians and actors were going to make it to 2017. On the other, with Brexit and Trump, it seemed none of us would make it either.
It has been a tumultuous year to say the least, one that has called into question the traditionally liberal societal values of the Western world. However, art and social stability have always had an inverse relationship. That is, great art is always produced in time of struggle. And with landmark albums coming out almost monthly, 2016 was no different.
So many brilliant albums came out this year that we here at Festicket felt the need to expand the traditional top 10 format into the top 20. And even still there were some really tough choices (Sorry Chance and Beyoncé, it wasn't personal).
To present the arc of this year in music, we've put our picks in chronological order. So, without further ado, here are the Festicket top 20 albums of 2016:
★ - David Bowie
2016 got off to an incredible start. The man, the legend, David Bowie dropped his first album in 3 years on his 69th birthday. And what an album it was. Using a jazz band led by the saxophonist Donny McCaslin, Bowie created his best effort since the 70s. The 7 songs cover a lot of ground, from the mystical and contemplative to the whirlingly energetic, before finishing off on a somber, reflective tone. The album's thematic tackling of death would become painfully clearly when Bowie passed away just 2 days after the album came out.
Malibu - Anderson .Paak
Riding the wave of soul, funk, jazz and old-school R&B that has swept across music in the last couple of years, particularly in the world of hip-hop, Californian rapper Anderson .Paak set the tone for the year with his remarkably smooth and suave second album. Making the most of his impeccable abilities as both a singer and a rapper, .Paak fuses elements of 70s soul, 90s hip-hop and modern production styles to create a piece of work that puts him head and shoulders above a large proportion of his contemporaries.
The Life of Pablo - Kanye West
The continually divisive hip hop star Kanye West released his 7th studio album on Valentine's Day. However, its themes of temptation, infidelity, and anxiety, aren't exactly tailored for the holiday. We can sit here and debate the merits of this music's creator all day (though you haters are just wrong), but what really stands out about this album is the way it was rolled out. Kanye never released a physical format of the album, and instead used this immateriality to his advantage. He made several rounds of revisions to the album well after the release date, changing the track listing and updating versions of songs, calling into question the definition of an album in the streaming age.
Phase – Jack Garratt
Transcending genres, Jack Garratt's debut album seems typical of a multi-instrumentalist always wanting to test himself. While Weathered sparks comparisons with Ed Sheeran, and Worry and Breathe wouldn't seem out of place on Radio 1, the album also pays a healthy dose of homage to James Blake, fusing pop-centric tunes with dubstep judders and skippy house rhythms over a gloomy undercurrent.
Untitled Unmastered - Kendrick Lamar
Kendrick's generational album To Pimp a Butterfly came out in 2015. After debuting a few unreleased tracks while making the rounds on late night TV in promotion of the album, Kendrick revealed he had a whole stash of unreleased songs already recorded. In March, 8 of these were released as Untitled Unmastered and we treated to a little more insight into just how locked in the Compton rapper has been. The jazz and p-funk influences are still strong here, but Kendrick balances these with more contemporary sounds and even some trap beats, showing the way for other rappers to attempt to reach his level.
Sometime in Space - Ishmael
The same day that brought us King Kendrick's reminder also provided one of the best and most diverse house albums of the year. Ishmael is a multi-instrumentalist and producer on South London's Church label. He records his own sax, drums, guitar and vocal parts live, giving his music an organic feel. His debut album is a journey to a place where time isn't linear and genre boundaries don't exist. Fusing jazz with electronic sounds, Sometime in Space is a testament to the possibilities of house music.
Made in the Manor – Kano
It’s generally accepted that as a genre, grime is lacking in ‘classic’ albums. But in the space of just over a decade, Kano now has two to his name. His output since the release of 2005’s Home Sweet Home has never lived up to the immediacy and rawness of that debut album, but the ten-years-on-the-scene veteran has created an impeccable album, one that he could only make at this point in his career. Made in the Manor is a reflective record that looks back on his East-London roots and his life so far; a social commentary on the changes that London has gone through in the intervening decade, and the state of things as they are now. All the time with a brilliant sense of humour and real heart.
Long Way Home – Låpsley
Steeped in melancholy, Lapsley's debut is a shimmering synth-pop tale of longing and heartache that has won her comparisons with Adele. But where the latter is all about voice, the former's tales are tinged with technicolor and wholesome production.
Everything You've Come to Expect – The Last Shadow Puppets
After a string-led debut in 2008, a follow-up Last Shadow Puppets album seemed inevitable, but given the test of time, the real question was what it would sound like. With both men evolving as artists in their own right, it was evident their own careers would influence their latest work together. The rockstar tendencies are evident, most notably on lead single Bad Habits, but the album's standout moments are its softer, sweeter touches: Turner's croon on Sweet Dreams TN and the nostalgic adolescence on The Dream Synopsis will hit even the hardest of hearts.
99.9% – Kaytranada
There were a lot of contenders for sounds of the summer this year, but you'd be hard pressed to find something better than Kaytranada's debut album 99.9%. Merging hip hop and r&b with electronic sounds, this one masterfully strikes a balance between danceability and musicality. With features from the likes of Craig David, Anderson .Paak, Badbadnotgood, and many more, the album presents some of the most distinct sounding artists around, instilling a unique quality. Overall, what this album makes clear is that Kaytranada is comfortable mining from all genres and merging them into his own sound.
HOPELESSNESS - ANOHNI
Marrying the political and the personal, the debut album from Anohni – formerly known as Antony Hegarty (of Antony and the Johnsons) – is a real emotional rollercoaster, tackling everything from war and surveillance to environmental crises. Anohni’s soulful and often pained vocals lend real heart and poignancy to the album’s difficult and challenging subject matters, whilst production from the unerringly superb Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never add an air of the cinematic to proceedings.
Konnichiwa – Skepta
The first studio album in five years from Tottenham born rapper Skepta went on to tip Bowie to the Mercury Award. After years neither here nor there, the reinvented artist came back with an album that firmly turned the spotlight onto grime. Its bold, swaggering beats and cutting vocals got it to No. 2 in the charts, but its real award was selling the genre to Britain's new wave of cool kids.
A Moon Shaped Pool – Radiohead
Teens of Denial - Car Seat Headrest
Rock music is undoubtedly in a lull right now. It just doesn't seem to represent our current time. But every now and again a band comes along that makes the genre sound fresh. The latest to do this is Car Seat Headrest. Lead singer Will Toledo combines witty lyrics and crunchy guitar tones into utterly relatable songs about the modern life experience. Like life, each song on this album twists and turns in directions you don't expect, keeping you glued to the stereo. Although the band is a standard 4 piece, the music here is deceptively complex and rewards repeat listening. Once you're hooked, you're hooked and there's nothing you can do about it.
Telefone - Noname
The debut mixtape/album from rapper Noname is an absolute delight. Previously known best for her collaborations with fellow Chicago native Chance the Rapper, 2016 was the year Noname came into her own. Telefone sees her explore relationships, addiction, family and politics, in a way that always sounds like a conversation with an old friend. The production is jazz-infused, the choruses soulful and the entire record just makes it impossible to dislike its creator.
1800-Dinosaur Presents Trim - Trim
At a time when grime is hitting the big leagues and gaining attention the world over, one of the scene’s oldest heads and most recognisable voices decided to explore some different avenues altogether. Following previous collaborations with James Blake, former Roll Deep member Trim teamed up with Blake’s 1800-Dinosaur production collective for a full project of his own. What resulted was a fascinatingly unique piece of work that benefits not just from the quick wit, off-kilter delivery and self-examination of the veteran East-London MC, but also from the intriguing production from the one-of-kind bunch of producers. No other album sounded anything like this in 2016, and it’s unlikely another album will for a very long time.
Blond - Frank Ocean
Arguably the year's most anticipated album was Frank Ocean's album Blond. Little was known about the reclusive r&b singer's sophomore effort before it finally arrived, prefaced by the visual album Endless. A left turn from his critically acclaimed debut album Channel Orange, Blond features a much more organic sound. The synths and electronic instruments of his first album are pushed to the background in favour of live instrumentation, particular guitars. But of course the main attraction is Ocean's voice, which is powerful and sad, frail and dextrous, all at the same time. This is an album that not only rewards, but requires repeat listening.
Heads Up – Warpaint
For Heads Up, the quartet stated their desire to move away from the intensity of their previous records, and rather reflect the excitement of their live shows. The result: an album that's both adventurous and free-spirited, and yet still retains the hazy, brooding atmospherics that made us fall in love with them.
A Seat at the Table - Solange
In a year filled by political turbulence and uncertainty, there was no shortage of albums – particularly from black artists – that engaged in political discourse and shone a light on enduring struggles. None did this quite as superbly as Solange’s A Seat at the Table, an album that beautifully addressed the plight of African-Americans with equal helpings of despair, weariness, strength and empowerment; all the while maintaining a beautifully soulful musicality, and a dreamy vocal performance.
We got it from Here... Thank You 4 Your service - A Tribe Called Quest
An album that surpassed more-or-less everyone’s expectations. When the announcement came earlier this year that the legendary rap group had been recording a new album, complete with the voice of Phife Dawg before his untimely passing, there was no telling how perfect a conclusion this album would be to the 30-year story of A Tribe Called Quest. It masterfully balances old and new, maintaining a classic Tribe feel without straying into misty-eyed nostalgia. Exploring social and political themes at a difficult time, the album demonstrates why ATCQ are widely considered to be the greatest hip-hop group ever.